September 01, 2018

Career Steps

Evaluating and Choosing Currencies

Wendy L. Werner

When it comes to thinking about your legal career—specifically, its costs and profits—there are two primary currencies: time and money. The questions you may want to ask yourself throughout your career are these: What are the choices that you are making in terms of how you spend those currencies and, just as you might do with your retirement account, how might you want to recalibrate your portfolio depending on the circumstances of your work, family and health and well-being?

Your Work

How you spend your time currency may change significantly during your career. As a newly minted attorney, you have already devoted a significant amount of it to become a lawyer. This included your prerequisite undergraduate degree, studying for and taking the LSAT, completing three or more years of law school and studying for and passing one or more bar exams. Despite all of the time invested, your first position as an attorney may seem more like an apprenticeship than a professional job. Unless you have previously been employed in the legal industry, most things that you do will be new, and you will be expending a significant amount of time currency on many things just to get up to speed. This may vary depending on the nature of the job and the size of the organization where you are working.

As your expertise grows, your time will hopefully be spent on elements of the practice of law that you find interesting, increasing your knowledge and furthering your career. This can be tricky. While early aspects of legal work may seem less than exciting, they often form a foundation necessary to take on more complex work as your skills develop. In order to measure that expenditure of time, focus on learning what skills are necessary to meet further career aspirations. What you may find is that you are building expertise in an area that you may not, in the long term, find fulfilling. If this is the case, consider how you might move into another area. The last thing you want to do is to realize that you are climbing a career ladder that is leaning against the wrong wall.

Your Finances

If you work in private practice, you are likely aware that firm profitability is based upon work brought in the door, completed, billed and collected. But there are significant costs that have nothing to do with marketing, completing work and collection. They include a wide variety of overhead expenditures that include space, technology, insurance, financial services and other expenses.

If you move up in a firm, and to an even greater extent if you become a shareholder—or if you start or join another firm—you will become even more aware of these additional costs. How much do you need to know about these costs? How much do you want to participate in performing the tasks associated with them? What are your time costs related to running the business? When do you want to become skilled in these other activities, or when do you decide that the highest and best uses of your time are in getting clients and doing their work? Are these adjunct areas things that you want to do, need to do, or are they time expenses that you want to outsource to other professionals?

Your Values

In working with people interested in changing jobs or careers, those often most committed and intent on making change are people who have found that the work they are doing, or the circumstances under which they are doing it, conflicts with their values. For example, this might include a prosecutor who discovers that he or she is more interested in being a public defender, or a person who enjoys his or her work as a trademark attorney but whose attorney supervisor is very difficult to work for.

Research conducted by Gallup and others indicates that people do not leave companies, they leave supervisors. So, if you find that your values conflict with your work on a day-to-day basis and you don’t anticipate a change in the culture of your organization, it’s likely time to make a change. Such circumstances will make it important to look closely at both your time and financial currencies. Changing jobs or career direction may involve both—and you are likely to be faced with determining which of the two currencies is more important at that moment.

The longer you wait to make a change, the more difficult the process may be. Significant career change made under stress is ripe for poor decision making, as well as raising the possibility of jumping from one difficult situation into another. At the early inkling that your values conflict with those of your work, begin to explore how you might make a change.

In addition, the values that you honor outside of work must be honored. If you’re in a stage of your career when you feel the need to spend more time with your family, you may need to adjust your time currency to accommodate that important need. If you find you are stagnating in your skill development, you may need to move in a direction that will give you the necessary time to work on new areas of practice. If you or your family is in greater need of financial resources, you may need to adjust your work time, hours or billable rates to provide greater financial resources.

Tracking Your Spending

Just as you track your time on client work and on other firm-related activities, it’s a good idea to track the time and financial currency you are spending on a variety of other aspects of your practice. It also makes sense to track the time and financial costs of the activities you are invested in outside of working and billing and are devoting to those skills you wish to develop that may not pertain to your immediate position. If you find a strong imbalance in your satisfaction based upon your dual currency expenditures, it may be time to rebalance.

You may want to put these areas in a chart with category headings that could include, for example:

  • Currently doing.
  • Currently not doing.
  • Contributes to legal business.
  • Contributes to learning.
  • Increases legal skill level.
  • Level of enjoyment.
  • Financial costs.
  • Time costs.
  • Impact on values.

You should measure other aspects as well:

  • Business development activities, broadly speaking, including networking, program development and delivery, writing and client prospecting.
  • Working on legal matters.
  • Time spent on recording time, billing and collection.
  • Technology-related time, including computer systems, security and practice management systems.
  • Employee supervision and management, and/or employee outsourcing.

Assessing Your Expenditures

Remember that all of these areas will change over time and may also change depending on the role you have in your organization. Early on everything will be a significant expenditure of your time resources. As your legal skills develop and your ability to track your time and billing becomes more efficient, you may move into other areas of time expenditure. Time spent supervising others, for example, is a significant time drain and requires developing another set of skills in selecting, on-boarding, training and handling performance reviews. Failure to spend an adequate amount of time doing this development work up front may end up being a significant financial cost.

Remember as well to continue to regularly check in with your values. If you find that what you value most in whatever stage of your career is not being realized, you may want to make a shift, large or small. As you evaluate your work years from now, you want to make sure that you have spent your currencies on the right things—those that matter to you most.

Wendy L. Werner

Principal, Werner Associates LLC

Wendy L. Werner is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is the co-chair of LP’s Book Publishing Board.